Pre-K Investment Is Critical for Memphis

On November 21st, Memphis City residents voted on the Pre-K initiative, a ballot measure that had the (almost unheard of) unanimous support of the Memphis City Council, as well as a stamp of approval from a majority of local business leaders. The measure would have committed a small share of property taxes to insure that voluntary, high-quality pre-Kindergarten would be available to all children in Memphis, Tennessee.

Even though the initiative failed, simply having pre-k on the ballot was an extraordinary positive step for our community, and it makes good sense. If there is one clear conclusion to take from the best evaluations, it is that high-quality pre-k supports kindergarten readiness, with lasting positive outcomes.

Pre-K Makes a Difference

Media reports that suggest pre-k doesn’t work simply got the facts wrong. Here’s the bottom line: When pre-k programs are staffed by trained early-education professionals, when pre-k’s use an evidence-based curriculum, and when classroom teachers and families of students get the support they need, children thrive.

Here are the facts. As a group, children who attend high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to:

  • Be school ready
  • Be strong early readers
  • Be successfully promoted
  • Avoid risky teen behaviors
  • Have better attendance
  • Have fewer behavior problems in school
  • Avoid becoming pregnant teens
  • Graduate from high school
  • Attend college
  • Find better jobs as adults
  • Avoid crime
  • Avoid welfare, and
  • Have better adult health

These results have been seen all over the country.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 But we don’t need to look further than our own schools for the proof. The Memphis City Schools (now Shelby County Schools) Office of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment wanted to see what difference pre-kindergarten makes in Memphis.

To find out, they followed children that came to kindergarten from various early childhood care and education backgrounds through third grade. In this way, the study was able to look not just at the kindergarten readiness scores of these children, but also at their progress through first, second, and third grade.

The results showed that children who had the benefit of one year of pre-kindergarten as 4-year-olds exhibited higher scores on a range of academic assessments. Across these vital early years of school, children who had attended Pre-kindergarten (with and without Head Start wrap-around services), had stronger test scores clear through third grade. In fact, their scores were higher, and the difference was statistically significant, on:

  • measures of kindergarten readiness,
  • the second grade Stanford Achievement Tests (SAT-10),
  • all sections of the third grade TCAP.

It was particularly striking that the pre-kindergarten advantage was strong enough to actually reduce the academic achievement gap between low and middle-income students.

To sum up the findings from this study, pre-kindergarten programs increase the chances of student achievement in Memphis and Shelby County.12

More than K-3

But the positive benefits don’t stop with third grade. As we raise levels of school readiness and academic achievement, we nurture the growth of an educative, productive workforce. Growing a workforce, in turn, is a strong step to raising employment-rates, and reducing reliance on welfare. The benefits extend to additional tax revenues and higher rates of home ownership.

This past week-end, nationally syndicated columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested in the New York Times that Memphis faces a clear choice: we can continue to spend money on a patchwork of efforts intended to respond to the grinding effects of poverty, low literacy and crime on our population, or we can choose to invest up-front, in pre-kindergarten, which the evidence tells us works to improve outcomes for individuals, families, and communities.13 No wonder economists like the Nobel Laureate James Heckman tell us that investments in high-quality early education are among the smartest development dollars that a community can spend.

For more of the best recent evidence, please see the links below.

Foundation for Child Development

New America Foundation

Why Negative Head Start Headlines are Wrong


Barnett, W. and Masse, L. (2005). Comparative benefit-cost analysis of the Abecedarian program and its policy implications.  Economics of Education Review 26. 113-125. Available here.

Belfield, Clive R., and Heather Schwartz. “The Economic Consequences of Early Childhood Education on the School System.” New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research, 2006.

Duncan GJ, Claessens A, Huston AC, et al. School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology. 2007; 43(6): 1428-1446.

Fox SE, Levitt P, Nelson CA. How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development. 2010; 81(1): 28-40.

Gormley WT, Phillips DA, Newmark K, et al. (2011). Social-Emotional Effects of Early Childhood Education Programs in Tulsa. Child Development. 82(6): 2095–2109.

Heckman, J. 2008. Schools, Skills, And Synapses. Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 46(3), pages 289-324, 07.  Available here.

Henry GT. (2006). Early education policy alternatives: Comparing quality and outcomes of Head Start and state prekindergarten. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis; 28(1): 77-99.

National Institute for Literacy. (2008). Developing early literacy. Report of the national early literacy panel: A scientific synthesis of early literacy development and implications for intervention.  Available here.

Reynolds, A., Temple, J., Robertson, D., Mann, E. (2002). Age 21 cost-benefit analysis of the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Centers.  Educational and Policy Analysis 24(4). 267-303. Available here.

The Pew Center on the States. (2011). Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future.  Pew Center on the States. Available here.

Wat, A. (2007). Dollars and sense: a review of economic analyses of pre-k. Pre-K Now Research Series.  Pre-K Now. Available here.

Sell, M. (2013). Longitudinal Impact of Memphis City Schools Pre-K and Shelby County Head Start. REASI Briefing Report. Available here.

The Southern Education Foundation (2011).  The Promise of Georgia Pre-K: Building life-long education, current budget savings and long-term economic growth in hard times. Southern Education Foundation, Inc.  Available here.